Issues related to money and nonprofit organizations are popping up all over the place – whether it's politicizing their grant-making or taking money from unsavory corporations. In that latter category and receiving almost no attention in the mainstream media (with one exception) is the National Wildlife Federation's partnership with Scotts Miracle-Gro (one link of many here on the Rant) and in the same week, news of the Sierra Club no longer taking money from the natural gas industry, from which it's gotten 25 million bucks over the years! That would be the same industry that promotes the much-hated-by-environmentalists practice of fracking. The Sierra Club had endorsed fracking over the years, until (finally) a new CEO pulled the plug on that source of millions and went clean.
So the hero of this piece is the Sierra Club's CEO Michael Brune, who when he got that job in 2010 made the decision to turn down an additional $30 million from the industry and offered this explanation:
We need to be unrestrained in our advocacy …The first rule of advocacy is that you shouldn’t take money from industries and companies you’re trying to change. Source.
As Paul Tukey pointed out in more of his excellent reporting on this issue, that's the opposite of the tack taken by the NWF's CEO in claiming that in taking money from Scotts, they could help it become a better company. Right.
But as Paul also pointed out, there are consequences to turning down tainted money, which in the Sierra Club's case amounted to a quarter of its yearly operating income. The Club had to reduce programs and lay people off.
Funding Options for Nonprofits
So where should nonprofits get their funding, anyway? Not by stepping up their onslaught of direct mail, thanks very much. Many critics of the NWF complain of their excessive fund-raising and lord only knows what portion of their operating budget goes to fund-raising. (More on that below.)
How about partnering with companies whose products and practices don't directly contradict the mission of the nonprofit? The Wilderness Society seems to have this figured out – by the look of their list of corporate partners and the policies they have in place for accepting corporate money. (In my Googling the Wilderness Society I found this report condemning its "socialist origins". See, just not capitalist enough!)
That small list of benign companies and strict standards contrasts not just with the NWF, mind you, but even more starkly with the list of "companies we work with" proudly displayed by the Nature Conservancy. Companies like Monsanto, Dow Chemical and BP, among others. Oh, yeah! (Never mind the occasional bad publicity.)
How to Judge a Nonprofit
Think I know? I just know what doesn't work – those Good Housekeeping-type ratings of nonprofits according to what percentage they spend on program versus administrative and fund-raising. NWF's fund-raising is reported to be just 14 percent – really?
My cynicism about these reported and trusted numbers comes from experience, a bad one. I once worked (briefly) for a nonprofit whose executives instructed us underlings to lie about our activities on the forms nonprofits submit, so that administrative and fund-raising work magically turned into programmatic work. On top of which, a lawyer hired to help them improve their program percentage set up an operation whereby clothing was donated to the nonprofit, which turned around and donated it again, the effect of which was to boost their program-related numbers without ever handling the clothes. And I see from their current Better Business report that they supposedy spend an astonishing 93% of their funds helping the homeless, and only 7% on admin and fund-raising. Reversing those numbers would come closer to the truth.
Nice to get that off my chest. Moving on…
Money-Giving Options for Nature-Lovers
Over on the Ecosystem Gardening blog, Carole Brown continues her reporting on the backlash against the NWF by compiling other ways readers can get their gardens wildlife-habitat-certified without having to pay the NWF for the privilege (and pay more for a sign). She found three national or North American organizations that fit the bill as substitutes for the NWF.
Even better, she suggests going local – by giving to nature centers and any number of conservation groups "right in your own backyard."
These small environmental organizations are often struggling to get by on a very small budget of donations. They are able to do amazing things with very little money.
I couldn't agree more with her suggestion or the assertion that our dollars go farther with these small, local groups than the large national ones. (For example, they probably don't pay their CEOs super-sized salaries.) There are at least a dozen good conservation groups in my area, and if I want to recommend backyard certification I can just send people to the University of Maryland's "Bay-Wise Yardstick" program. It's not only free but in my opinion, its more science-based literature is superior to the NWF's.
Carole goes on to recommend giving of your time, too. And that's always going to be local.
Think Scotts will Change?
While Carole's post ends with a rallying cry to get Scotts to "clean up its act", I'm way too cynical (or just too old) to think that boycotting Scotts would change the company in any way. There are plenty of reasons to avoid their products, and I do, but thinking it'll cause Scotts to have a "come to Jesus" experience is not one of them.
Money photo credit. Scotts graphic by Carole Brown.